On the trail of The Holocaust

Consider this situation. An extremely crazy guy lives two houses away from you in the same street. He’s already written a book, outlining in detail his plans to burn down your house and murder your family so that his offspring can live on your land instead. You know that this is not just idle talk, since he’s already done this to at least one of your neighbours. At least there’s one positive: the crazy guy has a shortage of the petrol needed to realise his incendiary plans. What do you do? Surely you don’t pretend to be his mate and help him to burn down the house between you, bringing him closer to your land in the process? Most of all, supplying him with the petrol he lacks at knock down prices has to be madness, right? It is unthinkable indeed, unless your surname is Stalin.

Since 1939, historians have come up with several theories about why the Soviet dictator chose to enter into an unholy alliance with his arch rival. One is that he hoped that Nazi Germany would get bogged down in a protracted war with the western powers, who had proved pathetically ineffectual in confronting Nazi aggression and had lost the confidence of most states in Europe in the process. With the Germans engaged in the west, the USSR would busily increase armaments production and the size of its army to have a much better chance in a conflict with Hitler.

Whatever the reason for the decision to collaborate with the Nazis, it proved a disastrous one for the Soviets, as less than a year later, Nazi Germany invaded the USSR, swiftly overrunning most of its European section. Every drop of oil in the panzer tanks which outclassed their outdated Soviet counterparts having been virtually gifted to the Nazis by Stalin himself, without which the Nazi invasion couldn’t even have taken place. The end result was the death of some 27 million Soviet citizens and massacres of Soviet citizens and Jews within the USSR and Baltic states.

Had it not been for World War 2, Rumbula would have remained an insignificant patch of woodland south of Riga. In late Autumn 1941 however, the events took place which gave the place infamy. SS units, backed by some local Latvian auxiliary units, evacuated Jewish people from the Riga ghetto, forced them to march the 10 kilometres to Rumbula, and shot 25,000 of them in a two day killing spree. After the Babi Yar massacre near Kiev, it was one of the biggest mass murders before the gas chambers came into operation.

I nearly skipped Rumbula for these reasons. Its inclusion in an otherwise light-hearted blog about Riga’s districts seemed somehow inappropriate. However, this is an unfortunate part of Riga’s history and therefore demands inclusion. Finding the actual site of the massacre isn’t easy. From the Rumbula bus stop, there are no signs. There are controversies to this day about the participation of Latvians in these actions and the overall impression I got is that it’s a part of history that understandably, they’d prefer to forget. Walking down the main road though, we eventually found the site. The only real clue was the odd structure above my head. There were no signs or anything until we got closer

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and a memorial stone confirmed it:

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Inevitably, it’s a fairly bleak and depressing place and a monument to the darker sides of human nature.

DSC00584    The victims were led up the path to the killing pits behind these stones in batches, then shot.

The main memorial consists of numerous stones, bearing the surnames of families killed.

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Normally at this point, I’d post a photo of me drinking in the district, on this occasion, out of respect for those murdered, I’ll make an exception. Rumbula is barely inhabited anyway, which is why it was chosen as a killing site, so there are no cafes or bars. I did have a bottle along which I drank near the bus stop to fulfill my drink in all districts rules.

After Rumbula, the next district was Darzini, the district of Riga furthest away from the centre. I’d been warned in advance by Latvians that this district was dodgy, but then, they’ve said that about most of the districts I’ve visited so far. Sadly this means that if a district genuinely is dodgy, I’ll probably ignore them again. Getting off the bus, it had a bit of a Suži feel about it. Identical looking streets, with private houses (most Riga residents live in tower blocks.) The place just screamed bland and boring. I’m a visit all districts traveller, get me outa here!

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Luckily there was more to it. A dyke at the end of it

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which of course, we simply had to find a way across. Images of myself featuring in Discovery channel documentaries about people being swept down river on my mind, I swallowed my fear. Eventually we found a bridge. Within the last decade, the Latvian government has controversially spent a lot of money (over 800 million euro) on a new bridge across the Daugava. Hopefully this one was a bit cheaper

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From the other side of the dyke, we found the climb to the top of the hill had been worth it. There were great views of the lower reaches of the Daugava and Darzini itself.

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Making it back across Darzini’s bridge alive, we found that all the streets followed a fairly bland USA pattern Darzini 59.linija, Darzini 58.linija, Darzini 57.linija… fair to say it was a long walk back to the main road. The residential bits of Darzini looked a little bland. Lots of bored dogs with nothing better to do than bark at any random foreigners passing by (what do they do the other 364 days?) Fortunately at the main road, we found not just one, but two bars. (Are you reading Suži?) Like the previous week, the first place was getting ready to host a private event. In Latvia, that means that no other customers can enter in the three hours before it, lest they disturb one of the napkins. We settled on the second bar. The charmingly named Dūmu krogs. I’m guessing the owner doesn’t know English? Joining the other dūmmies there, we found a very nice cottage style bar restaurant with reasonably priced drinks.

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Latvia is joining the Euro on 1 January, so prices on menus and in shops are getting to be a bit of a mess, getting listed in both currencies. Maybe the thinking is that we’ll all be so relieved to finally be back to a single price again that we’ll welcome the Euro with open arms? Deciding to skip the Hatt wisky, we settled down to coffee and beer, while my partner in kryme Eddie got stuck into a caesar salad

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After a depressing start, it was a useful day out and now means I’ve 14 districts out of 58 done.

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11 thoughts on “On the trail of The Holocaust

  1. Thanks John for making history come alive. Excellent account of a terrible atrocity. I think ‘Dumu’ means smoke/haze (maybe somebody could confirm that), making the ‘Smoke Pub’ a good place for a reasonably priced Caesar Salad.

    • Hey Ed, yeah a decent day out and yeah Dūmu means smoke, I just find it amusing how you get words like that (Windows vista) which end up sounding odd to speakers of another language

  2. I know a woman who’s writing a book about this episode Latvia would rather forget. She may end up being more unpopular than me. But these things need to be said.

    • I was really surprised how poorly signposted it was. I can understand them wanting to forget stuff like that, but still people do go there and it wouldn’t hurt. I suspect we’ll be able to buy voodoo dolls resembling your friend soon

  3. And here I am! Yes, my novel for young adults, ‘The Earth is Singing’ is about the Rumbula massacre and the ghetto. Due to be published on International Holocaust Memorial Day 2015. The research has been harrowing and fascinating and I intend to visit Rumbula when I return next year, because it is my own family history. Great blog post.

  4. That would be cool, but be careful, that’s how it all starts. I started off with slacker versions and then you end up having to do all and before you know it, you’ll just have to have that Tuesday night out in Tekstilshchiki. Stupidly, I never realised that Moscow had a chinatown until I looked at your map!

    • Yeah…I am way too prissy to risk Tekstilshchiki without a heavily armed guard 🙂 I am distressed enough by the fact that my office isnt in the Central!

      There is actually no China Town in Moscow. The ‘Kitay’ in Kitay-gorod is derived from the old-Russian ‘kita’, meaning a wall, and indeed this was a walled-off (fortified stone wall constructed in the 16th century) settlement adjacent to the Kremlin. Parts of the wall are still preserved!

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